Bill Centralizes School Budgeting a Piece at a Time

As part of Governor Lincoln Chafee’s package of legislation to address the budgetary problems of Rhode Island’s cities and towns, Senators Daniel DaPonte (D, East Providence, Pawtucket) and David Bates (R, Barrington, Bristol) submitted S2823, which gives the RI Department of Education (RIDE) increased oversight of school district budgets.  The legislation calls for two related changes:  It implements a standardized budget for schools and requires municipalities to report their entire budgets to the commissioner of education.

On the first, school departments are already in the process of implementing a “uniform system of accounting,” and S2823 would layer on a format for budgets:

The uniform system of accounting shall also include a standardized budget process to ensure districts can annually assess investment priorities and incorporate long range planning.

Asked what the governor means by “a standardized budget process,” spokeswoman Christine Hunsinger explained the intent to the Current as simply a shared format for presenting budgets.  “You’ll be able to compare towns and see where differences are,” she says, because all budgets will have the same line items presented in the same format.

Tim Duffy, of the RI Association of School Committees, doesn’t believe the change is an attempt to exert additional control over the construction of school budgets.  “It is more of a reporting initiative,” he says.

However, he does raise questions about the organization behind the oversight.  “One has to wonder about RIDE’s capacity to enforce it,” he says.  “They haven’t done a stellar job of getting Central Falls to manage their finances.”

The Association of School Committees would budget oversight to be the responsibility of the Advisory Council on School Finance.  That body, formed in the middle of the last decade, consists of executives and designees from various departments and organizations and was intended to guide the uniform chart of accounts process.

Duffy says he is trying to get the group to reconvene.

The second action of S2823 is to add the commissioner of education alongside the Division of Municipal Finance and the auditor general for receipt of municipal budgets.  This section of the bill also specifies that the reports must include information about “all fund sources.”  Whether and how outside revenue (such as federal aid and tuition income) ought to be included in all budgetary discussions has been a contentious topic in some communities.

Asked why the commissioner of education ought to receive specific budget data for entire cities and towns, rather than just schools, Hunsinger expressed the intention to allow RIDE to “flag problems early.”  Sending the whole budget package, she said, would save the city or town from having to prepare two separate reports; it’s “a matter of convenience.”

Pressed on the matter, Hunsinger said the bill “specifies that the commissioner only has oversight authority over school budgets.”  The provision of the legislation that she cited, however, appears in the first section (uniform budget).

And while it requires “periodic reviews and analysis of school revenues and expenses,” it places no restrictions on the scope of RIDE’s assessment that would limit the department to schools.